Why lawmakers should rethink coverage for illegal immigrants

Illegal immigrants living in California had fewer or similar numbers of doctor visits, emergency department visits and preventive services than U.S. citizens and other immigrant groups from 2009 through 2010, finds a new report from Health Affairs.

Illegal immigrants can't sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act; yet, if allowed to do so, their participation could potentially lower premiums and other healthcare costs.

Roughly 11.2 million illegal immigrants live in the United States--the largest amount, 2.55 million, resides in California, according to research data from the report. That group also accounts for 24 percent of the state's uninsured population.

A common misperception is these illegal immigrants contribute to problems facing the U.S. healthcare system. The study's researchers wanted to see if illegal immigrants do, in fact, incur more healthcare costs than other immigrants and U.S. citizens.

They found certain consistencies across targeted groups analyzed. For adults ages 18 and older, 3.2 percent of U.S.-born residents in California visited a doctor during the time of the study; only 1.7 percent of illegal immigrants did so. For emergency department visits, 18 percent of U.S.-born adults used this service, while illegal immigrants accounted for 14 percent of ED visits.

The researchers concluded illegal immigrants have lower healthcare spending, which totaled $15.4 billion annually than U.S.-born individuals who spent $1 trillion.

Extending coverage to illegal immigrants could lead to the early detection of diseases, lower the costs for safety-net providers and reduce premiums due to the larger low-service-use risk pool.

Back in February, California lawmakers proposed legislation that would provide health coverage to illegal immigrants. Some states, including New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Washington, already provide state-based health coverage for illegal children.

For more:
- read the Health Affairs study abstract